The Awareness of Death


Sermon preached by Fr. Antony Hughes on Sunday, April 5, 2020 at St. Mary Orthodox Church in Cambridge, MA.

Through this Great Lent pandemic we are being forced to look at everything, including our faith, in deeper ways. For example, the crucifixion of Jesus has never been only about his death, but also ours. In Larry Rosenberg’s wonderful book LIVING IN THE LIGHT OF DEATH he says it like this: we are being asked “to come face-to-face with the law of impermanence in an intimate way.”

What is the “law of impermanence”? It is this. Everything dies including us. Jesus speaks of this in several ways. One that comes to mind is in Mt. 6:19-21:

19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

So, our experience of Lent and Holy Week has the chance to become more personal. Jesus died because we die, he suffered because we suffer, and his resurrection assures us of ours. Holy Week is, in fact, a metaphor and a mirror for human life.

If we tie ourselves too much to anything in this life that is governed by time, we will eventually be greatly disappointed. Because everything bound to time will fail us in time. Change is inevitable. Change is a sign of both life and death simultaneously. There is nothing that exists that is not subject to this truth. We need to meditate on, as the funeral service says, “the brevity of our life.” The Holy Fathers and Mothers recommend we do this every day. We need to take up our cross every day. How?

First by embracing the whole of life’s experiences including the one’s we do not like.

One way we Orthodox say this is to give thanks to God for all things. It does not mean that God points his finger at us now and then and decides we need a good pandemic to wake us up. It is more like, when a pandemic, or a tornado comes, or someone cuts us off in traffic, or the grocery store runs out of something we desperately need, or whatever, happens, it becomes a tool for us to learn and grow and change and die a little to our demand that life be as we want it to be all the time. It is God who turns lemons into lemonade and we get to help!

Stephen Mitchell does an interpretive translation of Psalm 1 that illustrates what it means to die to self. His interpretation reads like this: “Blessed are the man and the woman who have grown beyond their greed, and have put an end to their hatred, and no longer nurture illusions. But they delight in the way things are and keep their hearts open, day and night…” That is not the way we usually read Psalm 1 and yet his interpretation speaks volumes! Putting away greed, anger, and illusions, and rejoicing in the way things are no matter how they are, we begin to understand what taking up the cross really means: it means to empty ourselves of ourselves. To be filled with the Spirit, we must become empty.

Angelus Silesius puts this in poetic verse, “God, whose love and joy are present everywhere, can’t come to visit you unless you aren’t there.” The Western monks of the Middle Ages said it like this, “Die before you die and you will never die.”

Today Christ Jesus tells his disciples he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die. In fact, in the space of two chapters in Mark Jesus mentions his death three times and the disciples change the subject three times. The resistance to and denial of death is a normal thing. We all feel it from time to time, when we get sick and now much more often. Overcoming that fear, our resistance, our denial, is the point of Christ’s work. It is the fear of death, writes St. Maximus the Confessor, that is the root of sin, It is the poison that infects us and the lens through which we see.

The Cross, the Tomb, and the Resurrection are for Christ and for each of us the ultimate experience of God. His journey through Holy Week mirrors our journey through life. Slowly but surely we walk through life to the end of it, through the doorway of death, and into resurrection. The Lord took all this on himself because we do. And at every step of the way God is with us.

There is a story from Rosenberg’s book that is a favorite of mine. It points to what can happen when we embrace the truth of impermanence and awaken to the beauty of each and every moment. He tells the story of a visit to a woman who lived in an iron lung. The doctors and nurses told the visitor that she was the most joyful person they had ever known. He wondered how this could be! What joy could one find trapped living inside a giant breathing machine? He walked into the room and met her. He asked how she could be so positive and joyful. She replied, “Every so often someone opens a window and a breeze comes through.” That was it! In the simple feel of a cool breeze on her face she found a reason to rejoice. This simple act of gratitude infected her whole life. The little things. The little moments. The iron lung was her Golgotha and Tomb, the open window and the breeze, her resurrection.

Do we feel the breeze of the Holy Spirit blowing in our lives? If not, we must ask ourselves, what windows do we need to open? Fear closes windows. Greed shuts window. Anger locks them. Dying to these things that constitute the very core of every sin we can commit before we die takes away the sting of death. Letting go of all that allows us the freedom to walk out of the house of fear we have built for ourselves, which is just another name for hell.

So, whether we are physically in church during Holy Week or not, we are still not cut off from the truths that it reveals. Remember, love is stronger than death.